Category Archives: festivals

I climbed Fuji twice last Monday! Mini Fuji, that is.

As always, the official climbing season for Mt. Fuji began last week on July 1st.  And with the Fuji-san opening (山開き) so opened the mini Fujis (富士塚).

As Fuji worship expanded during the Edo period (1600-1868), Fuji confraternities (Fuji kō 富士講) popped up around the country, especially the Kanto area.  These associations – some of which still exist – would pool money together so that a few members from each community could make the pilgrimage each year.  The rest who stayed behind though could still hit the symbolic summit by climbing their locally established Fuji.  Some of these mini peaks were small hills while others were made by piling up large rocks.

Some mini Fujis are still connected to shrines and confraternities.  I visited two of them in Tokyo last week while they were celebrating the opening of the season:  Onoteruzaki Jinja in Daitoku and Fuji Jinja in Komagome.  Onoteruzaki only opens their mini Fuji on June 3o and July 1 of each year (climbing the real peak often began the night before on the 30th).  Meanwhile Fuji Jinja celebrated with three days of festivities and auspicious crafts.

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Mountain asceticism in Tokyo?

Shugendō 修験道 is a school of ascetic practice unique to Japan that centers around the mountains.  So it would seem strange to find it in Shinagawa-ku of Tokyo.  Yet the temple of Shinagawa-dera 品川寺 hosted several major shugen rituals, carried out by approximately thirty shugenja (practitioners of Shugendō), this past weekend.  So does this mean that mountain-centered religious practices exist even in what is currently the largest metropolis in the world?  Well, sort of.

The rituals at Shinagawa-dera this weekend—involving fire and boiling water—were historically performed by practitioners after long stretches of asceticism in the mountains.  Through these periods of ritual seclusion, it was believed that they acquired special powers, which could then be used to benefit their followers.  Under the regulations of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu at the start of the Edo period (1600-1868), these  practitioners—formerly itinerant—were forced to settle down in cities, towns, and villages across the country.  As they did, they brought their practices and mountain connections to their new areas of residence.  By performing impressive acts like walking across beds of hot coals or splashing boiling water around themselves, they showcased their powerful skills to gathered spectators, and as guides, began taking followers to famous mountain sites associated with Shugendō.

Such is likely the case with the temple of Shinagawa-dera.  The temple has long been a branch temple of Daigoji  醍醐寺 (in Kyoto), which has served as the head temple of the Tōzan 当山 branch of Shugendō since the late sixteenth century.  Through this connection, Tōzan shugenja likely brought their rituals to Shinagawa-dera.  In turn, they would have been able to recruit and guide pilgrims to the distant Yoshino 吉野—famous among Japan’s numinous peaks and the main site of practice for Daigoji’s shugenja.  So in this sense, Edo period shugenja not only brought their mountain culture to the city but then brought city dwellers to the mountains.


The Dance of Princely Divinities: Scenes from the Ōji Shrine Dengaku Festival

To members of my dissertation committee, the recent influx of matsuri entries on my blog might raise eyebrows (i.e., that I’ve gotten a bit sidetracked from my main research).  Nevertheless, here’s another.

The shots below are taken from the Ōji Jinja Dengaku Mai 王子神社田楽舞, an annual festival in a northern section of Tokyo that centers on the dengaku dance.   Dengaku is a performance with roots in Kyoto.  As a form of kagura, it was historically intended to engage the deities, who descended into the bodies of the dancers through kamigakari 神懸かり (literally, “divine possession”).  The performance thus encompassed the movements of the deities, whose presence brought blessings to both dancers and spectators. (For an excellent, in-depth study, see Irit Averbuch’s book, The Gods Come Dancing.)

Ōji literally means “prince,” and accordingly, the performers of the Ōji dengaku are boys and girls around the ages of 8-10.  Children often occupied a liminal role in East Asian ritual (examples include Song period Daoism and Shugendo in Japan), in which they provided an interface between the spirit world and the human world.  As a comparative, children in North American/European cultures have also often been imagined to dwell close to the spirit realm (just think of The Shining, The Exorcist, or The Sixth Sense).

In Shugendo especially, young gods known as dōji 童子 acted as divine messengers, attendants of powerful deities like Fudō myōō 不動明王, occupants of mandalized mountains, and protectors of practitioners during their time in the mountains.  Ōji are in fact, a class of dōji originally from Kumano, thus suggesting a historical link between Kumano and the Ōji Shrine as well as the implied, divine nature of the dancers.

Dengaku and kagura 神楽 in general, nowadays, are no longer equated with acts of possession.  However, the specific step sequences of the dances still reflect the original choreography.  Moreover, the performances demonstrate how children continue to occupy a central role in many festivals throughout Japan.

(Click photos to enlarge.)


Reviving a festival

The Hashiramatsu 柱松 (literally, ‘pine trunks’) is an event in which three columns of tied bamboo or pine branches are stood upright and lit on fire.  The first to ignite determines the success (agricultural, economic, etc.) of the coming year.  Traditionally coinciding with the first day of Obon, it may have also been believed to invite down the local deities and ancestral spirits residing in the mountains.   The festival is held every three years at Togakushi and dates back to the late thirteenth century.  Well okay, that chronology is a bit misleading.

In the wake of major alterations to religious institutions by the government in the early Meiji period, the Hashiramatsu ended in the 1870s.  During this time, the three major temples on the mountain and their cloisters transformed from combinatory sites of Buddhism, Shinto and Shugendo into state-supported Shinto shrines.  Shugendo itself was proscribed from mountain sites around the country, which helps to explain the disappearance of this shugen-influenced ritual from Togakushi.

But after a thorough investigation by local scholars of extant sources related to the Hashiramatsu at Togakushi as well as other mountains (where it has continued uninterrupted), the festival has been recently revived.  Seeing the Togakushi Hashiramatsu offers a glimpse into the rich symbiosis of religious influences that were historically characteristic of practice at Togakushi and other sites around the country.  It may also suggest the future direction of the culture at Togakushi Jinja, given the community’s increasing re-engagement with its vibrant past.

(Click on photos to open gallery mode.)

The ceremony ends with the head priest seeing off the mountain deities and spirits as they return to the mountain.

Again, the event is held only once every three years, so if you get the chance, be sure to check it out in 2015!


The Great Spring Festival, part 2

Opening rituals done, and now begins the fun.

(Part 1 of this post can be found here.)

These five lit up goma precede the main fire of saito goma. The number of five represents a variety things in Esoteric Buddhism: five types of wisdom, five buddhas, or five luminous kings (明王). In this ritual, these deities are called down.

As the deities descend, the circle of practitioners chant and form hand mudra, both of which are meant to guard the deities against the scorching flames.

Now the main "saito goma" lights up. Characteristic of Shugendo, the saito goma is done outdoors with long spruce branches that billow out smoke. Formerly, it was conducted in the mountains. The name of this one - Ontake-san hon goma 御岳山本護摩 - suggests that it was traditionally held on Mt. Ontake itself.

Note the bare feet, soon to be treading through the glowing coals of the goma.

Here is one of the first gyoja 行者 (practitioners) to walk across the coals in what is called hi-watari 火渡り, literally "fire crossing." The white salt you rub your feet in before the coals may lessen some of the heat, but not by much! This type of event was formerly practiced by shugen specialists after sustained periods of ascetic practice in the mountains. It was believed that these austerities in the mountains awarded them supernatural powers. They could then showcase these powers at events such as this one in order to attract lay followers (an important source of income).

Now anyone can cross the coals. Laity undergo it in order to gain this-worldly benefits (現世利益).

A young girl carried across by a specialist. Shortly after, others in line were discouraged from following suit, given the danger of falling.

Ha-watari 刃渡り, or "sword crossing," is less commonly practiced than the hi-watari. Sharp sword blades make up the rungs of the ladder, which leans against a wooden tower in the picture. Luckily, a regular ladder takes you down the other side.

Done properly, one comes out unscathed. That said, this woman's face shows the pain her feet are feeling.

One of several prayer men attempting to insure safe passage.


The Great Spring Festival (春季大会), Honjo, Saitama Ken, part 1

Last week, I took the two hour local train from Shinagawa up to Honjo, Saitama to check out an annual festival at the Fukan Reijo (literally, the “numinous site of Fukan”).  Fukan was an eighteenth century ascetic who is said to have “opened up the mountain” (開闢) of Ontake.  Before this, the mountain had guarded by local ascetics who only climbed it after long periods of seclusion.  Through a sudden possession by the Great Avatar Zao (大権現座王) while on Ontake, Fukan was able to climb to the summit, thereby opening it to ordinary people afterwards.

Today, various confraternities (講) based mainly in the prefectures of Saitama and Gunma continue to gather at the Great Spring Festival and other smaller events to pray to Fukan for immediate benefits (現世利益) like the prevention or healing of disease, financial concerns, etc.

Numerous confraternities participate in the festival and each has a specific role to fulfill for the larger program of events.  The rituals are largely based on shugen practices dating back to at least the Edo period (1600-1868).  They comprise a mix of divination rituals, invitations to deities to enter the ritual space, and ‘extreme’ (in X Games parlance) events traditionally intended to showcase special powers acquired by the ascetics involved.

The festival will be divided into two blog posts:  this one will cover the preparations and rituals leading up to the shugen event of saito goma 採燈護摩;  and the next will cover the saito goma and events after.  Also, special thanks to my advisor, Suzuki Masataka (Professor of Social Sciences at Keio Daigaku) for painstakingly answering questions I had regarding these pictures.

As the name suggests, the Great Spring Festival takes place on April 10th, just as the sakura are in full bloom. In the background is the Fukan Hall.

One of many altars set up for the festival. It consists of mochi (rice cakes), sake, flowers, fresh vegetables and fruit, prepared as offerings.

The events begin with a procession of all specialists to Fukan Hall. Leading the procession is the resident priest of Fukan Reijo.

The procession is announced by the horagai 法螺貝, an instrument made mainly of a single large conch shell, typically used by practitioners of Shugendo.

Within the procession, a tengu wards off evil spirits with his sword.

Young children, dressed up in costume, are seen as occupying a liminal space between humans and the spirit world. Thus, their presence plays an important role as the practitioners will soon be hoping to engage with this realm.

A confraternity prepares one of many goma 護摩, which will later be lit in succession.

A confraternity boils water for the yudate 湯立て ritual, where water, once brought to a boil, is flung throughout the area.

The resident priest performs chants and mudra (hand gestures) before the saito goma, a major outdoor goma ritual specific to Shugendo.

Preparing a goma with incense on top. This goma will be the first to ignite, with its flame then carried to other gomas. Designated as the most powerful specialist here, he wields a shakujo 錫杖 staff in one hand and a vajra dagger in the other.

A shrine priest slices a sword through the air, ridding the space of evil spirits before the saito goma is lit.